We must distrust our instinct of intervention, for the desire to make one’s own will prevail is often disguised under the mask of solicitude. – Henri-Frédéric Amiel
*** In writing this, I was surprised at the anger that came back. That being said, I feel that I need to add a trigger warning. ***
Let me set the scene. It is Sunday afternoon. Church has just ended. People are moving from people pod to people pod. There is a level of excitement in the air. The pastor had delivered one hell of a sermon today. As I move from group to group, I pick up on each group’s conversations. I do not linger long. Most of these people I just know in passing. I finally locate my group. It is made up of people mainly in their late teens. I am eighteen and am getting ready to embark on my post high school life. I have lingered in the church’s youth group mainly because I am afraid of jumping into a college group. Am I ready to grow up? Am I ready for that responsibility? As I approach the group their conversation seems to taper off some as they look at me. Eighteen-year-old me misses the uncomfortable stares and strikes up a conversation with a couple of the group. As we are chatting the youth pastor approaches and asks the group if they would like to come over to their house for a barbecue. We all enthusiastically agree. The group quickly separates and heads toward their individual modes of transportation. We are all still at that age where we want to be the ones driving. Looking back, I am sure this was probably somewhat of a headache for our youth pastors’ neighbors having a group of teenagers showing up in all manners of cars, taking up all the parking places. We did not understand carpooling.
As I arrived and looked around, I noticed that there was not the usual barrage of cars. Thinking I had beat most everyone, I went inside the house. I was taken aback as I walked in and realized that everyone but me was already there. I guess someone got the memo about carpooling. I asked the youth pastor when we were going to barbecue. I was met by a quick glance at everyone in the room and then the response of – “We need to talk first.”
Ok, time for a bit of back story. I was absolutely living a double life at this time. I pretended to be a good church boy at church on Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday youth groups. I played their game and pretended that was who I was. At the same time, I was heading down a path that some might call destructive. I was using drugs, and alcohol to cover multiple misgivings about religion, faith, and where I belonged in all of it. I had become quite good at hiding it. Or so I thought.
I suspect that you are now thinking this is where I admit the error of my ways and show that I repented because of the love of my fellow youth group members. I am sad to inform you that this is not where this story is going. Remember, this blog series is called This Is Not Church, after all. As much as we all want our stories to follow those unrealistic after-school specials. I am here to tell you that they usually do not.
Even though I did not have a word for it at the time, what was about to go down was an intervention. It was an intervention for me, yours truly, the man I see in the mirror. I was asked to not speak, and to listen as person after person told me in no uncertain terms the road I was heading down. I heard everything from “you are going to die from a drug overdose” to “do you want to burn forever in a lake of fire?” I sat there stunned. I would not have been able to speak, even if I have been allowed to. These were my friends. These are the very same people that had sat with me through heartache after heartache. I in turn had sat with them through their trying times. Through there slipping away from the faith. It had never occurred to me to ever come at them like this. To say that I was angry was an understatement.
What they had all failed to realize was just how close I already was to leaving the faith altogether. My other life was not because I enjoyed getting drunk and high. It was because those were the few moments when I did not hate myself. Those were the moments when I could hide from my fears. Fears of being a failure, of not living up to what god expected from me, and fear that like every other time, I would inevitably fail at this religious thing again. The other thing that they all failed to understand is that by now I had become an exceptionally good actor. I was living this double life remember. I knew what they were after. I knew what they needed from me. So, without skipping a beat, I gave them exactly what they expected. I broke down. I sobbed. I begged for their forgiveness. I cried out to the god that I no longer believed in and pleaded for his forgiveness. The youth pastor escorted me into the kitchen so as to give me some semblance of privacy as I fell apart. He prayed with me. He hugged me and told me how proud he was of me. What he did not realize is at that moment, religion died in me. I no longer cared what this faith had for me; I did not want any part of it. I hated them all. I hated the youth pastor. I hated the youth group. I hated the church congregation. Most of all I hated their god. What a cruel vindictive bastard he was. I could no longer ignore the obvious disparity between to two gods that were preached on Sundays. The one that loved us no matter what, and the one that would send us to burn for all eternity for some random mistake we intentionally or unintentionally make.
As I was brought back into the living room, my eyes glanced across everyone in the room. I no longer recognized the people in front of me. Those who had always seemed like my friends now had this look of smug satisfaction. I realized that I only mattered as long as I was able to be saved by these people. I now recognized the same thing in me. How many times had I written someone off as lost? How many times had I given up on someone who had backslidden? Church for these people had become nothing more than a sales transaction. It had become a bean-counting exercise. “How many did you save today?” “How many did we lose today?” Never once was the question “What can I do to make them feel welcome, right now, just as they are?” Not once did we care beyond the notion of bringing another lost soul to the flock.
Is this story true? Yes. Did it happen to me? Yes. I have kept it vague because I still know some of these people. My goal here is not to call them out. My goal here is to call out a failing of the church. We (I am calling myself out too) need to be willing to sit with these people who are hurting and feel abandoned. I am sure there are people out there who have victory stories involving an intervention. I am positive though, that the failures outweigh the victories. We need to move past the quick fix idea and learn to be present in all the moments.
In keeping with the title of this series. This is not church. I for one do not believe this is what the church is called to do. The church is not a judicial court. It is not here to lay down the law. It is not here to pass judgment. The church needs to work like a MASH unit. It must be willing to be mobile. It must be willing to care for the wounded and sick. Not just from what we deem as our side, but for all. We need to be there to respect, care, and mostly love everyone.
Jon Turney — The Unpastor